I have no idea what a MOBA is.* I’m not even joking.** I’ve never played one. I think I dabbled with one of the PC ones for an hour or so once, but that was it. What does MOBA even stand for? I know what MMORPG means, and I know what an FPS is. But a MOBA? About the only thing I know about the MOBA is that people who play them play them for about a million hours, and that baddies move in pre-set channels, in lanes, in one direction. Or something. Maybe. Anyway, it was all the talk about Rum & Bones being like a MOBA that put me off it. That was a very silly of me.
RUM & BONES
My, my. This game is a blast, it turns out. And who knew? Well, maybe everybody. But, you see, when you explain what Rum & Bones plays like, it kinda sounds a bit rubbish at first. But it really isn’t. It’s actually a super-fun, exhilarating 2-player beatdown in cardboard.
There are two pirate ships, two big playing boards, side by side. Three gangplanks from one ship to another create three channels across which pirate crewmembers can move. The two crews of Deckhands and Bosuns move continuously, turn after turn, down these channels, these lanes, until they meet each other in battle or reach certain enemy objectives. That sounds really boring, doesn’t it? All your little men just pop up and move in a straight line until they meet each other and fling dice to attack?
But here’s the thing – this constant pushing of two forces down each other’s throats acts as both a constant element of tension and as a visual representation of how the battle is going. The further your crew has pushed onto the enemy ship, the better you’re probably doing. These three lanes, like a tug of war, are the core of the whole battle. Indeed, if these three lanes and these minion-level crewmembers were all that came with this game, eventually a winner would still be declared. Lucky rolls would win out, and objectives would eventually fall.
The objectives are key components on the enemy ship. The wheel, the mast, the cannon, the rigging – all that stuff. They all have hit points, and can all be broken down, and taking out any three of five will win the game for a player. Taking out these key areas can also sometimes give bonuses to the attacking player. Destroy your enemy’s cannon, for example, and you stop that cannon from firing a barrage at your ship at the start of every turn. Dismantle the enemy’s rigging and you will find it easier to go swinging around the fight on ropes.
Your normal crewmembers can’t do cool stuff like swing from ropes. They just walk in straight lines and swing their swords. Only your heroes can do such heroic things, and this is where the game turns from nothing much to something great. These heroes have the agency to run all over the ships, taking multiple actions, massing with the troops or breaking free from them at will. Each hero has a different number of hit points and different abilities, falling into recognisable class types – tanks and support characters and the like.
The heroes turn this game into an arcadey funfest that is very economical with its rules. As heroes kill those fragile crewmembers, they amass coins, and those coins can be spent to activate powerful special abilities. Before long, one ghost pirate is cursing and slowing the movement of others, another is dragging heroes towards him with some eldritch tendrils, a quartermaster is cutting down baddies and paying her fellow heroes coin as she does it, while roaring encouraging words that will heal another.
Movement is simple – for the crewmembers a constant straight line, always forwards towards the objectives, unless blocked. For the heroes, anywhere they like, except through enemies. Attacks use zones as their target, so when heroes huddle up with the crewmate minions, it allows for defensive play – the crewmembers will fall first before a hero takes a wound. Suddenly these mindless channels of drones become places to hide and take a breath, places to strategise and think fast.
There are special cards too, drawn into the hand at the end of every turn, allowing players to break the rules in different ways. The undead pirates have a lot of fear-related cards that can stun rival heroes and weaken their attack effectiveness with sheer terror. As these cards are played, though, there is a greater chance that the Kraken can awake – a new objective that appears between the two ships, disrupting the channels and attacking everything in sight. More chaos, more fun, more blood and drama.
Playing this game with my 9-year-old daughter, watching her react gleefully to all that colour and strife, I was impressed with how accessible this game is. She understood instantly what she had to do, and was even up to speed with the tactical nuances of the thing after a few turns. She was impressed by the fact that no hero ever really dies (they just get sent into reserve for a couple of turns, allowing the other player a bit of power-play time) and impressed by the constant forward momentum of the whole experience. It was exciting!
Games like this, built for fun and fun alone, live or die by their moments of excitement.
In our last game, my daughter needed only one more objective to win. One of the coolest parts of the game, for kids and daddies alike, is the Rigging movement that heroes can do, swinging from ship to ship on ropes. The catch in this move is that you need to make a successful roll to make sure you don’t fall overboard. The further you try to swing, the more tricky it is. In the final turn of that last game, my daughter decided she’d move, then swing to the objective she needed, then smash it apart. But for that swing to be a success, she needed to roll a 6.
Games like this, full of colour and joy, encourage bold decisions. When these games hit properly, they turn the players into thrill-seekers who behave in the spirit of the designers’ intentions. When that ridiculous, final heroic move came off successfully, a wonderful memory was created. Two players on their feet, with even the losing player roaring in celebration.
Games like this one need to be on your shelves.